Cameron’s encryption ban is opportunistic and misguided

What do you do when 12 people are shot dead by terrorists in Paris?

If you’re David Cameron, you decide to ban Snapchat. In an address earlier this week our prime minister called on technology firms to stop encrypting their users’ data. This, supposedly, to catch baddies organising their crimes through emoji-laden WhatsApps. This short-sighted, regressive and ridiculous policy from a man whose only experience with internet security is filling out captchas for fun, is not just reactionary and hugely misguided, but also threatens the liberties of every citizen in the country.

Two weeks ago, Jacob Appelbaum, a prominent computer security expert and respected member of the Chaos Computer Club, one of Europe’s largest hacker associations, revealed leaks at a conference in Hamburg confirming that the NSA have successfully broken SSH, SSL and TLS encryption. What this means for internet users is several things – online banking cannot be guaranteed to be secure, privacy online can- not be guaranteed, and thousands of government intelligence officials across the Western world have access to any nudes you’ve ever sent. This wouldn’t be a problem if the government intelligence agencies were known to be benevolent overseers, but they’re not. They are known to take part in industrial espionage and blackmail influential individuals.

The thing about breaking encryption is that it works backwards. The Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA and GCHQ hoover up all data passing over the internet and store it for later analysis (a technique known as “full take”). What these latest revelations mean is that the intelligence services can now retroactively decrypt any “secure” message you’ve sent in the past. Any article you’ve ever written for The Student paper, any controversial joke you’ve ever Facebook messaged privately to a friend, any emotional text you’ve sent to a partner or note you’ve ever taken on a phone app – someone out there has it all.

Many who advocate NSA and GCHQ’s aggressive data capture and analysis methods use the argument ‘if I have nothing to hide, then why does it matter?’. Those who espouse this mantra clearly haven’t considered the fact that illegality is not always a reason for wanting things hidden. It’s highly unlikely that anyone would want someone other than their doctor to have their sexual or medical history, let alone be able to track their movements at any given time, regardless of any wrong doings.

Privacy should be a right, and at the risk of sounding preachy, we have a duty to protect it. With the government cynically and opportunistically using the Charlie Hebdo attacks to further their attempts to clamp down on internet freedoms, it’s imperative that the response from the public is one of more freedom and privacy protection, not less.

In that spirit, before it potentially becomes a criminal offence to possess, here are some applications that really can protect you from the intelligence agencies. Only two forms of encryption, OTR (Off-The-Record encryption) and properly-implemented PGP are safe to use to be sure of actual privacy. The Android apps Textsecure and Redphone (called Signal on iOS), developed by prominent hacker Moxie Marlinspike, are probably the most secure messaging applications available right now, both utilising a form of encryption currently labelled as “catastrophic” by the NSA. That, or invest in a decent polaroid camera and some tin cans, these editors recommend Heinz over Campbell’s anyday – much superior acoustics.

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